Filter +

The North Korean Crisis: A Humanitarian Perspective

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

North Korean Nuclear Reactor Construction Site (Podknox/Flickr)

I do not, this evening, try and give answers to all these questions. I do not have good answers myself, I must confess. What I would like to do is to provide brief tactual background information, which, I am afraid, many of you may already know it, and also make a few observations.

First, a little bit of history. The U.N. humanitarian activity in North Korea started in the mid-1990's, 1995, in fact, when the country was struck by a series of natural disasters: floods and draught that brought severe damages, devastation, on its agricultural sector: food crops. This led the North Korean government to request an appeal for international assistance for the first time, swallowing pride according to some journalists who reported this at the time. Natural disasters thus triggered the emergency, but other factors, not only natural disaster but also other factors, also contributed to turn the emergency into crisis proportions in subsequent years. Experts have pointed out that a mix of natural disasters, policy failures, structural problems, mismanagement et cetera, et cetera, exacerbated the difficulties in North Korea. The country can no longer feed its people entirely, and the U.N. agencies have launched eight appeals every year. For the past seven years, the U.N. channeled, during this period, a total of close to U.S. one billion dollars in humanitarian assistance in food, as I said, in food, health, sanitation and other areas. Of course, outside the U.N. system, some substantial additional bilateral assistance is provided to this country.

The World Food Program reports that since 1996, North Korea needs, on average, over one million tons of cereals each year to feed its people. This represents over twenty-five percent of the country's overall food requirements. So unless this chronic food deficit is somehow met, millions of people in vulnerable situations, particularly children and the elderly, face starvation and malnutrition, and their effect, starving, wasting, and death.

I myself had the chance to make a brief visit to the country last August, and saw some of the situation there. And then, of course, Mr. Morris, executive director of the World Food Program, made his own visit and came back with a report and that was reported in the press.

What, then, is the response of the international community to the appeals that U.N. agencies have been making? For the past years, U.N. appeals for humanitarian assistance have received a reasonably good response from the international community, particularly key donors, traditional donors, which are the United States, Japan, Republic of Korea, and the European Union. The response to the U.N.-launched appeals has been at about eighty to eighty-five percent, which is considerably higher than the world average. The response that we get in respect to appeals made in, for example, Africa, or other situations, the average is about fifty percent. So North Korea has been receiving quite a positive response over the past years.

However, the situation has suddenly and rapidly changed since last fall. Jim Morris, WFP warned following his own visit to North Korea in last November, that sharply dwindling contributions from key donor countries in 2002 could mean a heavy death toll through this winter and beyond. Severe lack of funding from donors forced the World Food Program to cut back its food aid program in North Korea down to about three million people in November, from about 6.4 million people at the beginning of the year 2000. Unless quick funding is received, it would be able to help only 1.5 million people from January this year. In other words, the target contributions reduced to twenty-five percent, a quarter, of the year 2002 as a result of sharply declining funding.

As the situation stands now, absent immediate pledges, World Food Program food aid pipeline will run dry by the end of April, and UNICEF's supplies of basic medicines will run out by the end of March. In the worst cases, these agencies may be forced to drastically cut down their activities, assistance activities, or even be forced to withdraw their presence from North Korea. Should this happen, it would not be without some implications in terms of the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in the country and possibly beyond. And what I would not like to see happen is that the gains made over the past several years, in building trust and mutual cooperation between the U.N. system and North Korea, be lost. And effort at reducing malnutrition and addressing the basic needs of the people, the chances of that may be seriously jeopardized, of course.

North Korea's nuclear and missiles programs, and also in the case of Japan, the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korean agents in the past, have clearly poisoned the atmosphere, and key donors have stopped providing support. It is against this sort of background that the Secretary-General decided to send Mr. Maurice Strong as his personal envoy to North Korea in January to discuss the humanitarian situation in North Korea and other issues of interest. Mr. Strong came back, made his report to the Secretary General, with a certain number of recommendations. One of the recommendations he gave to the Secretary General was to start some special initiative to seek immediate donor support to make sure that at least, for the time being, agencies would be provided enough resources to carry on with the minimum level of activities in the D.P.R.K.